Every time I fly, a polyester-suited TSA gremlin will poke and prod me or examine my personal affects. Whether they examine a fair-skinned, blue-eyed female solely to avoid accusations of racial and gender profiling or if my toothbrush truly is made of suspicious materials, I will never know. In London, agents examined my carry-on after it had cleared security. In Germany, a stout, bristly woman led me to an enclosed area and demanded I remove my shoes and open my carry-on; her questions implied she had tagged me as a drug mule. In U.S. customs lines, security frequently swabs my fingers for traces of bomb material.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said a diminutive TSA agent as I stepped through the cylindrical X-ray machine at the Des Moines airport the day before Thanksgiving, “I need to pat your bun.”
The airport bun, as my family calls the tousle of unruly curls stacked atop my crown for long-distance travel, has been my staple mile-high hairstyle for the better part of a decade. The firmly secured but still stylish tendrils have departed from airports in Virginia and waltzed through several international ports without detainment.
To my bewilderment, the polyester suit began to mash down and claw into my airport bun, digging the talons of my plastic hairclip — I purposefully did not secure my locks with metal — into my cranium. God only knows what she expected to find. A pocket knife? A firearm the size of an iPhone 8? Contraband e-cigarettes?
My hair, apparently, is too big for the Midwest.
Although I have yet to have an airline bump me to first class, I’ve been told they pick from economy passengers who look the part. When the airlines reward my grooming regimen, I hope to fit right in with what I imagine to be people with luxurious lifestyles. One simply cannot look luxurious with flat hair.
Since the dawn of America, Southern women have been taking their hair to new heights. Hairstyle has long conveyed the silent message of status. In the latter half of the 18th century, preposterous coifs topped with outrageous bows, hats and even birdcages dominated European courts. Gentry in the American colonies followed suit. The bigger the hair, the longer you spent on it. The more time you could waste, the more power and property you possessed, the closer you could sit to the pulpit in church, the closer to God you walked. By the law of syllogism, “the bigger the hair, the closer to God,” has long been the mantra of Southern women.
Big hair fit lock-step into the upper echelons of a society based on class stratification. Although opportunities for social and economic advancement remained more abundant in America than in Europe, lank hair never caught on. Instead, those who moved on the social ladder largely adopted impractical styles.
As the ideal of Southern womanhood increasingly intertwined with physical beauty in the 19th century; impracticality and the lifestyle of leisure behind it still ruled. The birth of beauty pageants soon followed. According to Volume 13 of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the Mardi Gras festival crowned its first queen in 1871, and the Atlanta International Cotton Exposition sponsored a beauty show in 1895. By the turn of the century, the South’s chambers of commerce and fraternal organizations hosted similar displays.
When shows evolved into competitive pageants, the South quickly set the aesthetic, from head to toe. Setting hot-rolled curls with a can of Aqua Net is a marvel of engineering that rivals the 18th-century custom of pinning model ships into waves of powdered tresses. Big hair still equals beautiful.
Although my mother never put me through a beauty pageant, her dedication to Treseme medium-hold must ensure Christmas bonuses for the entire company every year. As Shellie Rushing Tomlinson says in “Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On!,” “big hair may come and go, but belles know that flat hair is never acceptable.” After my airport bun endured inspection, I had to rush to the nearest mirror to restore it to its dignity. God forbid I greet my parents at the Charlottesville, Va., airport with flat hair.
A few days later, I headed through security to catch my flight back to Des Moines. The government must have recently implemented a new security regulation regarding women’s hair because another polyester suit detained me.
“Our security systems don’t understand hair,” she rolled her eyes.
After a perfunctory poke, a very distant cousin to the thorough inspection I had received in the Midwest, my airport bun and I were dismissed.
Contact Phoebe Marie Brannock at